Lincoln, Eric C(harles) 1924–2000
C(harles) Eric Lincoln 1924–2000
Educator, sociologist, author, cleric
Known primarily for his scholarly works on black American experiences in the religious world, C. Eric Lincoln took on many roles over his lifetime including educator, sociologist, and even minister, an occupation of which he was overly critical in his academic studies. Lincoln, however, felt that by taking on these many professions, he was able to fully explore how the American public viewed the black community, and how he and other African Americans could work to bring about change in American society. All of his writing focused on the ability of one person to change those things around them through being educated, and Lincoln felt that he could educate through his writing. As Eric Copage said in a New York Times obituary, part of Lincoln’s gift was “he was able to translate lofty concepts into ideas understandable by the general public.”
C. Eric Lincoln was born on June 23, 1924, in Athens, a small rural community in northern Alabama. Lincoln was abandoned by his parents as a young child, and it was left to his maternal grandmother, Mattie Sowell, whom he called Mama Matt, and grandfather to provide for Lincoln, in their small house located on a dirt road at the edge of town. This childhood home was two blocks from the white community of Athens, where Lincoln’s grandmother cooked for a white family named Martin. By the time Lincoln was nine years old he had already learned that black children did not enjoy the same privileges as white children. In one of his last books, Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America, Lincoln referred to these differences as a “series of ‘lessons’ learned in the process of growing up.” While this would be Lincoln’s first real awareness of racial prejudice, it would not be his last, and his experiences in racist rural Alabama would eventually shape the direction of his life.
When Lincoln was growing up, schools were still segregated. There were two public high schools for white children, but the city and county administrators thought that black children did not need to be educated beyond sixth grade. Any money spent on more education for black children would have to come out of the school budget for white children, and thus city and county officials could not see any reason to improve black schools. In one of those strange occurrences that ended up being a benefit of educational racism, Lincoln was able to attend a private missionary high school for black children. The New England Congregational Church established Trinity School to meet the needs of the black community. The tuition was three dollars a month, and beginning in the third grade Lincoln began hauling horse manure for the school garden in order to earn money for this tuition.
For most of his childhood and adolescence, Lincoln worked for the Martins, who also employed his grandmother and grandfather. At the Martins’ dairy, Lincoln washed bottles and delivered milk and cheese. When Lincoln was 13, the family home burned to the ground and his grandfather became ill and unable to work. With the need for money especially important, Lincoln was forced to seek additional work, picking cotton as a
At a Glance…
Born on June 23, 1924, in Athens, AL; died on May 14, 2000, in Durham, NC; married twice; second wife, Lucy Cook; children: (first wife) Cecil Eric, Joyce Elaine; (second wife) Hilary Anne, Less Charles II. Education: LeMoyne College, BA, 1947; Fisk University, MA, 1954; University of Chicago Divinity School, BDiv, 1956; Boston University, MEd 1960; Boston University, PhD, 1960.
Career: Clark College, Atlanta, GA, asst. prof, of religion and philosophy, 1954-57, assoc. prof, of social philosophy, 1960-61, prof, of social relations, 1961-64, administrative asst. to the university pres., 1961-63, dir. for the Institute for Social Relations, 1963-65; Boston University, Human Relations Ctr., dir. of Panel of Americans, 1958-60; Boston College, adjunct prof., 1963-65; Portland State College (now University of Portland), prof, of sociology, 1965-67; Union Theological Seminary, prof, of sociology of religion, 1967-73; Fisk University, prof, of religion and sociology, 1973-76, chairman, Dept. Religious and Philosophical Studies, 1973-76; Duke University, prof, of religion and culture, 1976-93; William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Prof. Emeritus, 1991-93; ordained United Methodist minister, 1957. Author, 1961-2000, works included: The Black Muslims in America, My Face is Black, Martin Luther King Jr.: A Profile, This Road Since Freedom: Collected Poems, Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America.
Awards: Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Southern Fiction, 1988.
field worker to help pay for his schoolbooks and to put food on the dinner table. This experience picking cotton would ultimately result in Lincoln learning an especially painful lesson on the subtleties of racism. When the manager tried to cheat Lincoln of his earnings, the young boy persisted in claiming the money owed to him; he pointed out that the manager had made a mistake in calculating the money earned for the cotton. As a result Lincoln was beaten badly, and in his book Coming Through the Fire he related that he had learned yet another lesson, given by that manager: “’Aint no nigger can count behind a white man!‘” Lincoln recounted many other lessons in this autobiography that he learned growing up in Athens, but undoubtedly one of the most important was that of the value of education. Trinity School had at one time been burned to the ground by a white mob, but it was rebuilt and continued to stand as one of the few schools in Alabama to offer a secondary education to black students. While at Trinity, Lincoln edited the school newspaper, the Campus Chronicle, and graduated as valedictorian of his class. Shortly thereafter, in 1941, Lincoln left Alabama and moved to Chicago, where he worked and studied for a short period of time.
In Coming Through the Fire, Lincoln referred to leaving Alabama in 1941 as “the year I became a man.” It was also the year when he found he was “not just a counterfeit man commonly called a nigger.” But Lincoln was to discover that racism existed outside rural Alabama, and that it existed in Chicago as well as elsewhere in America. Lincoln also discovered that racism existed in the military even though the country was at war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lincoln tried to join the Navy but was told that “’We ain’t taking no niggers in the Navy today. Just fightin’ men.‘” As the war progressed, Lincoln was drafted into the Navy, and in the last years of World War II he served in the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps from 1944-45. The Navy also provided a forum for racism. For instance, while traveling on a train from the East Coast to San Diego, Lincoln was forced to sit behind a curtain in the dining car so that German prisoners of war could eat without being offended by the presence of a black man. Even in time of war, racism dominated the American landscape.
With his time in the Navy at an end, Lincoln moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and in 1947 he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and philosophy from LeMoyne College. He went on to earn a master’s degree in philosophy from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a bachelor of divinity degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and by 1957 he had become an ordained United Methodist minister. In 1960 he earned a master’s degree in education from Boston University and completed work for a doctorate in sociology and social ethics. At some point during this period, Lincoln also married and became the father to two children. This marriage ended at some point prior to 1961.
During his academic career, Lincoln worked and taught at several different colleges. He was the director of public relations at LaMoyne College from 1950-51, and was the associate personnel dean at Fisk University from 1953-54. Lincoln then began a career in teaching and moved to Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he became an assistant professor of religion and philosophy. He briefly moved to Boston University in 1958, where he became human relations director for the Panel of Americans. He then returned to Clark, becoming an associate professor of social philosophy from 1960-61. At about this same time, Lincoln married again and became the father of two more children.
At Clark University Lincoln was appointed professor of social relations from 1961-64 and also became administrative assistant to the university’s president. During this same period, Lincoln also functioned as the assistant dean of personnel at Clark. While teaching part-time at Boston University from 1963-65, he was also director for the Institute for Social Relations. For the next two years, from 1965-67, Lincoln taught at Portland State College in Portland, Oregon, where he was a professor of sociology. But it did not take long for Lincoln to return to the East Coast. From 1967-73 he taught sociology of religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Another move in 1973 brought Lincoln back to Nashville and Fisk University, where he became both a professor of religion and sociology and the chairman of the department of religious and philosophical studies, until his departure in 1976. Lincoln completed his academic career at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he was a professor of religion and culture from 1976-93. During his last two years at Duke, Lincoln also held the position of William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Lincoln also held visiting professorships at several other universities, including Dartmouth, Spelman, and Vassar Colleges, the State University of New York at Albany, Queens College in the City of New York, and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
In addition to a career as a teacher and administrator, Lincoln was also a prolific writer. He is perhaps best known for his 1961 book The Black Muslims in America, which originated as his doctoral dissertation. This book, with its focus on the Black Muslim movement in the United States, brought Lincoln to national attention. In succeeding books Lincoln focused on the black experience in the United States, on the divide between whites and blacks, and on the role of religion in the black experience. One of Lincoln’s more controversial works, My Face Is Black, examined the history of civil rights and racism in America. This book was greeted with mixed reviews, in large part because his view of racism was particularly harsh and uncompromising. Another of Lincoln’s books, Martin Luther King Jr.: A Profile, was released as part of the American Profile Series. The black religious experience was another topic that was of special interest to Lincoln. In The Black Church Since Frazier Lincoln adds his own lengthy essay to Edward Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Church in America, and the resulting work examines how the traditional black church responded to the civil rights movement. Lincoln returned to the black church experience in other books, including The Black Experience in Religion: A Book of Readings, and The Black Church in the African-American Experience, co-written with his former student Lawrence H. Mamiya.
In addition to his studies on racism, religion, and ethnic sociology, Lincoln also wrote a novel, The Avenue: Clayton City, a fictional study of racism in a small southern town, which earned Lincoln the Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Southern Fiction. Lincoln also wrote poetry, many examples of which would find their way into his sermons and speeches. One book of poetry, This Road Since Freedom: Collected Poems, captures the rhythms of black music and also begs the reader to sing. Many of Lincoln’s books revealed his commitment to the black church. In an obituary published in the New York Times, author Eric V. Copage remembered that although Lincoln was an “ordained United Methodist minister, his friendships and expertise were truly ecumenical. He was a friend of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Alex Haley, and in 1990 was cited by Pope John Paul II for ‘scholarly service to the church.’” Lincoln’s commitments to ending racism and to religion are most apparent in his own personal life. He was a founding member of the Reconciliation United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, a multi-racial place of worship to which Lincoln made strong commitments of both time and energy. Lincoln and his wife attended services at this church, and he wrote many of the hymns that are sung at services.
Lincoln died on May 14, 2000 in Durham, North Carolina. At his death Lincoln was remembered by Henry Whelchel, chairman of the department of religion and philosophy at Clark University, as a man who “brought black religion into the academic arena as a respected institution and as a respected discipline.” In his obituary for the Plain Dealer, Yonat Shimron called Lincoln “a Renaissance man, not only in his scholarly interests but in his passion for racial reconciliation.” In a speech that he delivered in January of 2000 in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Lincoln urged his listeners to remember that “it takes courage to love.” Lincoln never lost his faith in America’s potential to live up to its promise. His work was focused on making Americans face racism and on having the courage to change the world.
The Black Muslims in America, Beacon Press, 1961, 2nd rev. ed., 1982.
My Face Is Black, Beacon Press, 1964.
Martin Luther King Jr.: A Profile, Hill&Wang, 1969, rev. ed., 1984.
The Black Church Since Frazier, bound with Edward Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Church in America, Schocken, 1974.
The Avenue: Clayton City, William Morrow, 1988.
(With Lawrence H. Mamiya) The Black Church in the African-American Experience, Duke University Press, 1990.
This Road Since Freedom: Collected Poems, Carolina Wren Press, 1990.
Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America, Duke University Press, 1996.
Lincoln, C. Eric, Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America, Duke University Press, 1996.
New York Times, May 17, 2000, p. 26.
Plain Dealer, June 3, 2000, p. 1F.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a speech delivered by C. Eric Lincoln in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on January 16, 2000.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
"Lincoln, Eric C(harles) 1924–2000." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lincoln-eric-charles-1924-2000
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